Two KTH researchers receive ERC Consolidator Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) today published the results of the 2020 call for proposals for ERC Consolidator Grants. Of the 327 researchers who received grants – 14 of whom come from Sweden – two recipients are researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology: Ilaria Testa and Jens Bardarson.

Ilaria Testa, a researcher in biophysics, will receive just over €2 million over five years for her project InSpIRe.

“This is a big deal for our lab,” Testa says. “Very often, especially in the early stages of a career, you have to dedicate extensive time towards fund-raising, while establishing and leading the lab. If grant writing become your full-time occupation, the quality of science inevitably deteriorates, because you lack the time for your team. This ERC provides us with the resources needed to do science with full dedication and focus, something that fosters creativity and an idea enriched environment.”

In the InSpIRe project, Testa and her team at Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) will image and study the inner world of the brain´s synapses, that is, the contacts between neuronal cells (the brain´s nerve cells), which allows humans to think, learn and develop emotions.

Will provide new knowledge about human memory
According to Testa, the challenge in synaptic imaging is that they are small and packed and their building blocks, organelles (the equivalent of cells to organs) and proteins, can be very dynamic. Due to this, she and her team will develop a microscopy-based technology with enough resolution to image small organelles and which is fast enough to follow their dynamics in all three dimensional spaces of brain tissues.

“If we succeed, we will be able to get answers to questions such as why certain synapses are better equipped than others to form and preserve memory,” Testa says.

Jens Bardarson, a researcher in condensed matter theory, will receive a sum just shy of €2 million over five years for his project, LOCFRONT.

“First and foremost, I take this is a recognition of the work that my team and I have done in recent years, and a massive encouragement to keep going,” Bardarson says. “From a purely practical point of view, of course, this affords me to put together a consistently strong team of motivated postdocs and PhD students, and it gives us some space to focus on the research we want to do in the upcoming years. This team is a part of a larger, vibrant environment for quantum matter physics at and around Albanova, with strong groups from KTH, SU and Nordita (Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, Ed.). My new project will help to strengthen this environment, which is what brought me to Stockholm in the first place. I hope we can nurture this environment further into something even more special.”

Quantum particles take all possible paths at the same time
In the LOCFRONT project, Bardarson and his team will explore the fundamental physics of nonequilibrium dynamics of many quantum particles moving in a random environment. He says that the understanding of such complex quantum systems underlies rapidly emerging quantum technology, such as quantum computing

“One way to think about what a quantum computer does is that it simply is a controlled evolution of the interaction of many quantum degrees of freedom. When quantum particles move in a random environment the phenomena of quantum interference plays an important role,,” he says.

“When quantum particles move from A to B, they do not take a single optimal path, as do the classical objects we are used to in daily life. If I throw a ball to you, you can follow its trajectory and hopefully catch it. But in a sense, quantum particles instead take all possible paths at the same time,” Bardarson says.

Both researchers previously received Starting Grants from ERC, prior to coming to KTH. Testa came to KTH in 2015 from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. Bardarson came to KTH in 2017 from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany.

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